While people are living longer lives these days, they’re not necessarily living better lives. With increasing age comes an increase in chronic medical problems, such as disease, arthritis, chronic pain or sensory impairment. These ailments compromise a person’s quality of life, which, understandably, may lead to depression. In fact, it is estimated that 1 out of every 4 seniors lives with a mental illness such as depression or anxiety.
And it’s a dismal cycle. Research has shown that depression makes medical illness or physical disability worse, while an increase in medical problems is a risk factor for depression. 
Taking that into consideration, you may want to look at a vitamin that has been studied extensively for its role in warding off disease and also depression: vitamin D.
Known as the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is produced in our bodies when sensors in our skin cells absorb the UVB rays from the sun. With people spending more and more of their time indoors, vitamin D deficiency is widespread among people of all ages.
We’ve warned many times that a vitamin D deficiency could be dangerous to your physical health, but when it comes to your mental health, more and more studies are suggesting a link between low levels of serum 25-hydroxy vitamin D levels (25(OH)D) and the presence of depressive symptoms in the elderly or the risk of developing them.
In a recently published study, researchers looked at the association between total vitamin D intake from food, multivitamins and individual supplements, and mental health-related quality of life in a group of 15,954 postmenopausal women who were part of the larger Iowa Women’s Health Study (IWHS). The women were between the ages of 55 and 69 when they were sent their original questionnaire in 1986, which addressed body size, health history, lifestyle characteristics, sociodemographics, and dietary intake and supplement use, and received follow-up questionnaires in 1987, 1989, 1992, 1997, and 2004.
The current recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for vitamin D for women over the age of 70 is 800 IU per day, so the women were divided into three groups:
- Less than 400 IU/day (less than half of the RDA)
- 400–799 IU/day
- 800 IU/day or more (met the RDA)
Only 18 percent of the women met the RDA for women over the age of 70 (800 IU/day), and the mean vitamin D intake of the group was 525.2 IU/day. Vitamin D supplement use was reported by 11 percent to 12 percent of the participants.
Mental health-related quality of life (QOL) was assessed using five scales from the Medical Outcomes Study 36-item Short-form Health Survey:
- Mental health: Measures anxiety, depression, loss of behavioral or emotional control, and psychological well-being.
- Role emotional: Assesses role disability, i.e., the inability to work or carry out usual activities.
- Social functioning: Measures the ability to engage in normal social activities.
- Vitality: Assesses energy and fatigue.
- General health: Assesses overall health perceptions.
After adjusting for age and daily energy intake, the women who consumed less than half of the RDA for vitamin D had significantly lower mean QOL scores for all five scales compared with women in the middle and highest vitamin D intake groups. The was no difference between the scores for women in the middle and highest vitamin D intake with the exception of the vitality scale, where the women in the highest vitamin D intake group had higher scores.
And when the five scales were combined, the overall association between vitamin D intake and QOL score was statistically significant.
Next, researchers adjusted for not only daily energy intake and age, but also for smoking status, BMI, education level, current living arrangement, antidepressant use, and history of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, fractures and cancer. Here they found that although the association between vitamin D and QOL scores was lessened somewhat, it was still considered statistically significant for the mental health and general health scales, as well as the overall association.
Finally, researchers adjusted for all the things mentioned previously, and added in one more factor: physical activity. This final adjustment further weakened the association between vitamin D and QOL scores on the five separate scales and overall, with a statistically significant association remaining only for the mental health and social functioning scales.
So does that mean the study is a wash? Not at all.
Plenty of research has suggested that people who are more physically active have a higher quality of life. And vitamin D supplementation been shown to reduce bone loss, improve muscle performance and reduce the risk of falling in the elderly. Furthermore, low vitamin D status has been associated with a lower physical activity level, and decreased gait speed and balance. So, as you can see, it all seems to be connected.
The study authors concluded, “Consuming [greater than or equal to] 400 IU of vitamin D per day was associated with higher mental health-related QOL scores compared to those who consumed less than 400 IU/day. Vitamin D may also be involved in other physiologic processes, such as susceptibility to falls, fractures, diabetes, cancer, and infectious and cardiovascular diseases. Therefore, meeting dietary recommendations for vitamin D intake is a potential method for improving overall health in older women.”
How Can You Up Your Vitamin D?
As we said, vitamin D deficiency is widespread among people of all ages, but it is an easy problem to fix. You can up your levels just by spending 15 minutes a day in the sun without sunscreen. You can also get vitamin D by eating foods like salmon, egg yolks, dark, leafy greens and fortified dairy products.
However, for people who are already vitamin D deficient, you should consider taking a vitamin D supplement, specifically vitamin D3 in the form of cholecalciferol, the form best absorbed and utilized by the human body.
The RDA for people over 70 is 800 IU/day, while 400-600 IU/day is recommended for healthy adults. The key word here is “healthy.” That dosage may be adequate for people who aren’t yet in disease states, who get adequate exposure to sunlight, and who don’t take medications that leech vitamin D from the body. But if you are already vitamin D deficient, it’s not enough. The National Academy of Sciences considers 2,000 IU to be the safe daily upper limit of vitamin D supplementation.
If you are concerned that you may be vitamin D deficient, ask your doctor to order a vitamin profile blood test. If you are deficient, your doctor can recommend a dosage level that is appropriate for your particular situation. And if you’re looking for a high-quality vitamin D supplement, you can simply click here.
 Zender R, Olshansky E. Women’s mental health: depression and anxiety. Nurs Clin North Am. 2009;44:355–64.
 Miller MD, Paradis CF, Houck PR, et al: Chronic medical illness in patients with recurrent major depression. Am J Geriatr Psychiatry. 1996;4:281-290.
 Lyness JM, Caine ED, Consell Y, et al: Depressive symptoms, medical illness, and functional status in depressed psychiatric inpatients. Am J Psychiatry. 1993;150:910-915.
 Motsingera S et al. Vitamin D intake and mental health-related quality of life in older women: The Iowa Women’s Health Study. Maturitas. 2011;doi:10.1016/j.maturitas.2011.12.005.
 Dawson-Hughes B. Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D and functional outcomes in the elderly. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;88:537S–40S.
 Gerdhem P, et al. Association between 25- hydroxy vitamin D levels, physical activity, muscle strength and fractures in the prospective population-based OPRA Study of Elderly Women. Osteoporos Int. 2005;16:1425–31.